The historic hands-on profession of upholstery is being passed on to a new generation. Georgette McCready met master craftswoman Joanna Heptinstall who is teaching her skills to others
If you had to create a film set for an artisan workshop, Joanna Heptinstall’s second floor Georgian warehouse studio would be just what you’d conjure up. In a light-filled airy space, its windows overlooking the village of Holt and the Wiltshire countryside, students of Joanna’s Traditional Upholstery School are working on restoring chairs set up on workbenches around the room. There’s a row of sewing machines, rolls of fabric, boxes of tools that almost invite you to handle them – particularly the magnetic hammers which make banging in tiny tacks a task to relish – and in the air there’s the distinctive pleasant dry smell of hessian.
The handful of women students busy working away on their chairs in this Georgian warehouse space are all studying for a professional diploma in upholstery, in this most unusual of schools, set up last year by Joanna, who has been a professional upholsterer for almost 20 years. She’s also a member of the Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers, which involves members of the association visiting her workshop to inspect her work to ensure she met their professional standards.
“It was pretty nerve racking,” she admits of those inspection visits, wearing her well earned association membership badge on her apron. Given that upholstery is not generally suggested as a career in schools, how did Joanna find herself learning this historic skill?
“I did a degree in fine art, then ended up working as a freelance magazine writer. One day I was commissioned to write a feature on an upholstery school in Wales. Well, I just walked into that room and fell in love with it, the whole thing. I knew then and there that upholstery was an enduring skill that I’d never grow tired of – you’re always learning – and I decided that one day I would set up my own upholstery school.”
Typically these days those wanting to enter the upolstery world are largely women changing career or life direction and wanting to set up their own business. Isn’t Joanna worried that she’s simply creating a roomful of rivals, who having learned all the skills needed to strip any chair back and basically re-build it from the frame up, would then go off and do her out of work?
She laughs at this notion and points out that there is a limitless supply of chairs in the world needing repair or complete makeovers. “I have never been short of work, in fact I have passed commissions on to other upholsterers that I know and trust. We are very lucky with our customers, we develop a very personal special relationship with them. Very often they’ll bring you a piece of much loved furniture that might have belonged to a grandmother, and they want to see it given a new lease of life. It’s a very creative, satisfying job to do. The upholstery community is very supportive too and we pass work on to people we trust.”
Once this batch of students graduate from their diploma course, armed with all the skills they need to set up on their own, Joanna will be starting a new diploma course in September, although as she says, the mentoring and networking will continue among the upholstery community. Other upholstery diploma courses tend to be residential but Joanna has deliberately chosen weekly day sessions, which she says fits in better with people’s work-life balance. She says: “I have children so I understand that people need to meet family commitments and so the weekly day course seemed a good way to teach and to learn.”
Joanna didn’t train as a teacher but was invited to teach at the prestigious Denman College in Oxfordshire, the WI’s school of learning, and is now a regular guest tutor there. It’s clear from her students’ demeanour that she has created an ideal environment for learning, where people support each other as they develop their skills. There’s also a students’ corner offering squashy sofas, tea, biscuits and space for the occasional comforting problem solving chat.
In addition to the professional diploma course, the Traditional Upholstery School also runs a foundation course in the evenings and a leisure day time class with a loyal following and a sociable vibe, as Joanna says: “The day classes are filled with cake and chatter and the members have formed a friendly group who socialise together. I’ll be starting a new day class in September, but I’m afraid there is now a waiting list.”
Joanna has another professional string to her bow. She’s also trained as a traditional lampshade maker and runs classes in that too. The next sessions begin in September. Lampshade making workshops, just like the upholstery classes, teach the core traditional techniques for making tailored or pleated lampshades, so that students can go off afterwards and apply those skills.
As Joanna says of both her specialist subjects: “My unique selling point is that I am teaching traditional skills to a very professional standard. I’m delighted that students are now coming to me from all over the country, and indeed, I have students coming down from Scotland and another who is coming from France. I hope eventually to run international classes.”
And to add another seal of approval to her skills Joanna was commissioned by Search Press publishers to write a practical guide to lampshade making, which is due out later this year.
To find out more about forthcoming courses in upholstery and lampshade making, visit: traditionalupholsteryschool.co.uk.